Well it's an age old proverb that to govern is to make sacrifices.

Everyone knows that with more than a trivial amount of people not everyone thinks the same as you. So one has to come up with a solution, either ignoring the people who think differently or meeting somewhere in the middle.

It seems to me that the US (and most newer democracies) have a real tendency to just listen to their own voters, and fully ignoring the rest. This creates a polarized society, leading to a lot of stress between different groups. (In case of say Iraq one could see even the rise of IS as an effect of this polarizing - where a group feels they are marginalized by a larger group).

The other option is to what we call here "poldering", where each group makes his stance during election. However after that the groups start to look for common grounds. Each giving in to some requirements of the other group to make sure they consolidate what they think is more important. Leaving many groups with what they feel is good, on topics they feel are important.

As a direct example I take the US government as it is right now: why do the democrats not go to the president with the idea: "hey let's talk about immigration, we would support you if you would support our idea for healthcare". Or the president going to the other parties with "hey I need this wall funded, how about we increase taxes to the top echelon of the population then we can both fund the wall and xyz you have always loved to get". Instead we see two people solidifying in their own "correctness" blaming the other from not doing exactly what they like, and in the end no one gets what they want?

Why is this act of "poldering" so alien?

  • 1
    I can't seem to find it now, but I remember a poll finding that over 30% of respondents from both parties felt that the constituents of the other party were passing polices that were actively destructive to the country. Combine that with a voting populace that has instant, unfiltered access to every available opinion about an issue, and you might see why politicians are reluctant to be seen as negotiating with the enemy. Jan 14, 2019 at 18:44
  • 1
    @IllusiveBrian that would still hold 70% who do not think that way: and everyone agrees that a government that doesn't do a thing is the worst. It also doesn't explain why this is the case in newer democracies like the US.
    – paul23
    Jan 14, 2019 at 18:52
  • 7
    I wouldn't be so sure that everyone agrees a government that doesn't act is worse than one that acts poorly. Jan 14, 2019 at 18:54
  • 3
    You said "everyone agrees that a government that doesn't do a thing is the worst". I believe the exact opposite: laissez-faire -- the government that governs least, governs best.
    – user2565
    Jan 14, 2019 at 18:55
  • 1
    @phoog Of course not. I should've said "I believe in almost the exact opposite". I redeemed myself, though, by saying "the government that governs least", not "lack of government", which would be anarchy.
    – user2565
    Jan 14, 2019 at 21:57

3 Answers 3


This Happens All the Time

I worked as legislative staff for several years in my state's legislature. The behavior you are talking about happens all the time. It happens on trivial issues ("if you'll agree to restaurant X catering the committee meeting tomorrow, we'll let you have the conference room with the nice chairs on Friday") all the way up to serious policy issues like you describe.

On relatively small or medium sized issues this can happen quickly. One committee I helped staff would have 15 minute breaks in meetings. Ostensibly this was for legislators to grab drinks, go to the bathroom, etc. In practice there were typically meetings "at the rail" (they would go to a balcony railing nearby) and trade favors and iron out committee business. In some cases there could be 20-30 minutes of heated debate before a break, but afterwards a motion would pass unanimously.

On larger issues this takes much more time, but still happens. Legislators meet with each other in private, as well as members of the executive branch, to swap favors. This also happens within parties. One of the key events for this kind of thing is a caucus (where applicable).

This behavior is also called log-rolling.

Why don't I see this happening more often?

Largely it's because it tends to be difficult to observe. It's hard to see the backroom deals and personal conversations that make up log-rolling.

But there are real reasons it doesn't happen more often. For one thing, the United States has a weak party system. Parties can't exercise strong discipline over their members. This means that the negotiations usually don't happen as exchanges between parties, but as exchanges between individuals. This makes the job far more difficult and time consuming. Nonetheless, both party leaders and individual legislators are capable of reaching these deals regularly.

A Theoretical Answer

Richard Fenno's Homestyle describes a theory of legislator behavior that may be interesting to you. He conducted extensive fieldwork which included traveling with legislators and observing them as they worked in their own districts. His book is both very good and very accessible to non-academics. I would recommend it for anyone interested in legislative politics.

At its heart, Fenno's said that legislators work hard to build a relationship with their constituency. They know that eventually they will have to explain their votes to the public. Voting for bills which their voters don't support will weaken or harm their relationship, limiting re-election chances.

Wikisum has a summary of the book. It's inexpensive on Amazon if you are interested.

  • Then why doesn't it happen "right now", and why does it so often "not happen"? The whole idea of accepting a shutdown (or even threatening with martial law) seems alien to me, and I wonder why there isn't a backlash on that?
    – paul23
    Jan 15, 2019 at 4:15
  • @paul23 I intended to cover that with my last two sections. It's hard to do in the U.S. because you usually have to negotiate with each legislator, rather than a party. It's also hard because legislators don't want to vote for something their voters don't support. Vote trading is hard to justify and voters don't like to accept that it's practical politics. Jan 15, 2019 at 4:17
  • This question may help you understand why this particular policy is worth shutting down the government over, in many people's eyes. Jan 15, 2019 at 4:19
  • "Vote trading is hard to justify and voters don't like to accept that it's practical politics." says whom? As example in the Netherlands this is common, expected and it has been shown that by being "stiff" you lose many more votes. (It's why parties are so reluctant to let governments fall, typically the one who started this loses lots of votes just by initializing that).
    – paul23
    Jan 15, 2019 at 4:21
  • 2
    @paul23 It sounds likely that the key difference is that voters in the U.S. and Netherlands reward different kinds of behavior. Jan 15, 2019 at 4:25

You seldom hear much about the many issues on which compromises are made. They're the proverbial dog that does nothing in the nighttime. The problem is that on some issues you have at least one side (often more) that absolutely rejects compromise.

To take your current example, I expect the Democrats would be willing to discuss reasonable measures on immigration, but Trump insists on an ineffective, unpopular, but symbolic Wall. Indeed, he's already rejected most reasonable anti-illegal immigration measured, like NAFTA. (After all, if people could find decent jobs in their home countries, fewer would want to leave.) And of course the Democrats wouldn't want that Wall even if Mexico was paying. So as long as it remains a question of Wall or no Wall, instead of how to effectively deal with immigration, no compromise is possible.

  • 8
    @Sjoerd that depends on what you consider "reasonable."
    – phoog
    Jan 14, 2019 at 20:05
  • 1
    @Sjoerd they were even willing to discuss the border wall.
    – JJJ
    Jan 14, 2019 at 21:05
  • Your first paragraph is a good answer: there is a lot of compromise, but you hear less about it. You only hear about the most polarized viewpoints where the parties can't agree (selection bias). Though I agree with your second paragraph, it's extremely partisan and I suggest you delete it or rewrite it to be less partisan.
    – user2565
    Jan 14, 2019 at 21:56
  • 7
    @Sjoerd - He's absloutely correct (washingtonexaminer.com/news/…). The Dems are willing to fund illegal immigration measures, including some fencing, but not the wall in its entirety. There are simply places along the border where a wall is far form the most effective measure, and is frankly more trouble than it is worth. It could be said that the Dems are the only ones willing to be reasonable about immigration.
    – cpcodes
    Jan 14, 2019 at 21:57
  • @Sjoerd: And there's the problem. We can't even agree on what constitutes "reasonable measures". I think they'd include things like expanded guest worker programs (with incentives to return home after the period is up), providing reasonably remunerative jobs in other countries (NAFTA &c), legalizing drugs to cut off the cartels & gangs that make much of Latin America unsafe...
    – jamesqf
    Jan 15, 2019 at 20:27

The US is a country that effectively has a two party system (minor party candidates are rarely elected). These two parties require require votes from around 51% of the electorate in their district to get majorities in various houses. This would seem to suggest a large degree of internal 'Poldaring' within these parties to reach shared positions on which they can run a campaign. Note that to attract further votes the party may do additional 'poldaring' to try and align themselves better with public. All this is done before coming into power.

So now you seem to be asking these parties which have gone to some length to settle their internal differences, to then reach out across the divide and make further compromises that may be counter to their values, and lose them votes from their core supports later down the line; this is a lot to ask.

Parties in opposition often gain political capital by opposing the government, even at times when this may not be constructive, making their votes harder to win. A party is made of many individuals, and by placating the opposition, there is a risk of alienating those within the party and losing key votes. This leads to the position that there is no benefit in compromising with the opposition for the majority party.

Your example about Donald Trump's wall is particularly interesting. Trump promised a border wall specifically, and has (or so it would seem) decided that he must therefore deliver this. As you can see, this is not necessarily something that can be compromised on - there is either a border wall or not. This is an excellent example of when opposite positions are held that simply can not be reconciled.

  • Shouldn't "circa 51%" actually be "a majority"? If 200 million people vote, you can fall nearly 2 million people short of 51% and still have a majority.
    – phoog
    Jan 14, 2019 at 22:07
  • 1
    This wouldn't explain why in the Netherlands it is way more common (happens all the time) to make compromises. Where the major party basically "gives" something they don't particularly care about to the oppositiion in request for support in another topic the opposition doesn't care about. The major party does this because they like the smooth sailing, and know that the opposition also needs "topics" they can bring home to their electorate to say: "look what we achieved even though we're not in the government". I also wish to view this in a more global view.
    – paul23
    Jan 14, 2019 at 23:08
  • @Abigail While that is indeed true, I did not insert that in my question as I wish to keep the question focussed. (instead of having to go through once again a lot of prejudices about how that is communism and communism is bad).
    – paul23
    Jan 15, 2019 at 0:41
  • Shorter summary: In two party systems, majority coalitions are formed before the election, in multiparty systems, majority coalitions are formed after the election.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 15, 2019 at 0:57
  • That explains the direct effect, but not why new democracies choose to follow that paradigm @ohwilleke
    – paul23
    Jan 15, 2019 at 3:29

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .